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ARE “FELA!” MUSICAL PRODUCERS HEADED FOR TROUBLE?
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October 11, 2010 09:40 PM PDT

ARE “FELA!” MUSICAL PRODUCERS

HEADED FOR TROUBLE?

 

By Tenisio Seanima

 

The Tony Award-winning musical “Fela!” opened on Broadway less than a year ago to glowing reviews. As a diehard fan of the musical genius and Nigerian revolutionary, I was excited to see the life of the legend depicted in such an incredible show. And yet something didn’t seem quite right.

 

“Fela!,” the musical, pays no credit in its playbill to its most likely source, Fela:  This Bitch Of A Life, the only biography authorized by Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. First published by Alison & Busby in 1982—during Kuti’s lifetime—and reissued last year, the book is the work of Carlos Moore, a respected Afro-Cuban scholar based in Brazil with a long track record of advocating for international black causes.

 

Surprised by the playbill’s omission, I decided to re-read Moore’s book—based on hours of in-depth interviews with the artist and the women in his lifeand I found the similarities to be uncanny. With each turn of the page, I discovered significant overlap between the development of Kuti’s character in the book and in the Broadway musical.

 

A quick Internet search confirmed I was not alone in assuming the producers’ debt to Moore:

 

“Choreographer Bill T. Jones directed and co-wrote the musical with Jim Lewis, who based the scenes on the biography by Dr. Carlos Moore,” wrote Adriane, a blogger at MTV.  

 

On the Afrofunk Music Forum, reviewer David McDavitt said, “Written by Jim Lewis & Bill T. Jones, the story relies heavily upon the best source on Fela: the transcribed interviews by Carlos Moore, Fela:  This Bitch Of A Life.”

 

In her story for the New York Times, Felicia Lee reported that “much of [the performers’] information about Fela and his queens came from ‘Fela: This Bitch of a Life,’ a biography by Carlos Moore, an ethnologist and political scientist who knew Fela.” Lee also noted that Moore had met with Jones and the play’s cast.

 

It seems Moore was initially associated with the musical in some capacity and then later distanced himself from it. He had even produced an enthusiastic testimonial about the musical’s production quality for the official “Fela!” website. That video, however, was recently pulled from site without explanation, although it can still be seen on YouTube.

 

I decided to explore the matter further, talking with anyone who had seen the play and read the 1982 biography. I discovered most were in agreement that “Fela!” seemed to owe a debt to Moore’s book. Marva Allen, owner of Harlem’s Hue-man Bookstore & Café, put it most succinctly: “I thought the entire musical was based on Dr. Carlos Moore’s book.”

 

Others were more specific. Both Earl Davis, the former director of the Institute of African-American Affairs at New York University, and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, author and president of the New York-based Caribbean Cultural Center & African Diaspora Institute, noted the inclusion of Kuti’s deceased mother as a character in the Broadway musical. Davis said, “Clearly, there is a close relation between how the play depicts Fela’s relationship with his mother and what is contained in Moore’s biography.”

 

The original 1982 pressing of Fela:  This Bitch Of A Life—available only in Europe, in both English and French—includes two chapters excluded from the 2009 American edition. Those chapters, titled “Afa Ojo” and commonly known as the “Black Pages,” concern a visit by Fela’s mother, Funmilayo, from the spirit world to dissuade her son from committing suicide and encourage him to continue with his activist work.

 

“Fela!,” the Broadway musical, employs a strikingly similar conceit to explain Kuti’s development as a revolutionary. In the musical, Funmilayo’s character is depicted as an “Orisha” (in Yoruba spiritual culture, a personified attribute of God) whose name is “Afa Ojo (She Who Commands Rain).” The spirit visits Kuti and delivers the message that he must stay in Nigeria and continue to fight for the people.

 

Vega of the Caribbean Cultural Center & African Diaspora Institute also noted overlapping stories regarding Kuti’s relationship with his mother, citing “the story about Fela being reborn as the child that originally died, because it was named Hildegart.”  

 

Since the ghost mother character and her relationship to Kuti is so key to the musical, I decided to ask “Fela!” producer Stephen Hendel about it in a June 24, 2010, interview on the Atlanta-based radio station WRFG.

 

Asked about the sources used to conceive the musical with director Bill T. Jones and scriptwriter Jim Lewis (who that month received a Tony nomination for best script), Hendel said: “When we were putting the theater piece together, we were…trying to figure out what were the key relationships in his life and the key relationship we could depict on stage… We settled on his relationship with his mother.”

 

Pressed for more details, specifically with regards to Moore’s book, he added: “We went from…a workshop in 2007 to the off-Broadway production in 2008, [and] we settled on using his search for his mother in the spirit world as… one of the key moments of the show. When Carlos Moore came and met with us… he said that ‘The thing I am really impressed with, and I congratulate you [on], is how accurately you got his relationship with his mother’—which is something that we did not know and which we sort of intuitively arrived at.”

 

Several days later, Moore presented a contrasting version of the story during a dialogue at the National Black Arts Festival event in Atlanta. I attended the event, titled “Fela: A Celebration of Life,” in hopes of securing an interview with Moore, who declined.

 

In lively conversation with Malaika Adero, vice president of Atria Books and a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, Moore said: “[In] the American edition of the book, which came out last year, I wasn’t sure that an American public would connect with this story of a spirit speaking to her son, because the book opens and closes with the mother speaking to the son and the son speaking to the mother... At the end… the son is talking about… killing himself and it’s the mother who comes and tells him, ‘No, you are not supposed to commit suicide.’ So that is how the book ends. I thought an American public would not relate to this…so we took it out.”

 

He added: “I think it actually triggered something… Those people who, you know—Bill T. Jones, or whoever—who were thinking about the play. It was the [Afa Ojo] soliloquy that really triggered off this whole thing, because the play actually is woven around this whole thing of this…dead mother who is speaking to the son and convincing him.”

 

In her follow-up, Adero remarked, “I’m holding onto my first-edition copy with dear life because it does have the Black Pages, as they are referred to, with the soliloquy, which I recognized in the Broadway play.”

 

Mary L. Turk, an Atlanta-based social worker at the event, had this to offer: “The spiritual connection of Fela to his mother and his people were definitely in Carlos Moore’s book. Fela’s coming back to life from being a previous child who died, is also mentioned in the musical. A chapter called ‘Abiku (The Twice-Born)’ mentions this story in Moore’s book. Last, in the play, each individual wife is highlighted in a similar fashion as how they are previewed in the book.” [Seventy-one pages of Moore’s book are composed of individual interviews with fourteen of Fela’s former wives; the chapter is titled “My Queens.”]

Turk said she only realized Moore hadn’t been credited as a source when she read the show’s playbill.

The Atlanta event also featured cast members Sahr Ngaujah, who plays Kuti in the musical, and Saycon Sengbloh, who plays Sandra Iszadore, Kuti’s muse. Both acknowledged the influence of Moore’s book on their work.

“Bill T. Jones and the producer…had been in discussion about the idea for, I guess, maybe two and a half years before they started to put things on its feet,” Ngaujah said. “Then I became involved in the project. We did a series of workshops that would last two to three months at a time over a four-year period before we opened it off-Broadway.”

He added, “I read Carlos’ book. I read as many books as I could get my hands on… Once we got to off-Broadway, then people like Carlos [started] coming around.”

I tried to investigate deeper, but neither the musical’s producers nor Moore responded to interview requests. Moore’s Atlanta-based literary agent Janell Agyeman did admit that “there are serious issues” but refused further comment. Moore’s Miami-based publicist, Roslyn Alic-Batson, would only confirm that the scholar will embark on a one-month book-signing tour of the United States in the fall. The tour will include a conversation/book-signing event at the Hue-man Bookstore & Café in Harlem.

 

The producers of “Fela!” are already facing legal worries from a recent lawsuit filed by New York photographer Marylyn Nance claiming one of her images was used without permission as a backdrop in the show. Nance is seeking damages for copyright infringement.